Strutting & Scuffling
Here Come the Meter Men
By Daniel Knobler
The Meters are not superstars, but they are about as big as musicians can be in New Orleans, the epicenter of American rhythm. Art Neville, Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, George Porter Jr., and Leo Nocentelli are the city's equivalent of Motown's Funk Brothers or Stax's Booker T & the M.G's. From the late ‘60s to late ‘70s they played on most of the region's r&b hits as the house band for producer Allen Toussaint, and landed seven of their own singles in the Billboard Top 100 (14 on the r&b charts). Almost every 45 they pressed found its way into the New Orleans canon and the standard repertoire of funk bands worldwide. But the Meters never got what they deserved. Without a James Brown or Otis Redding to lead them to national stardom, most of their prime years were spent performing within driving distance of home. Despite playing on (and in many cases co-writing) hit records for Toussaint-produced artists including Pattie LaBelle, Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, and Dr. John, they barely made enough money to get by. But the mark they left on New Orleans culture and American popular music is unmistakable. Their syncopated retooling of New Orleans rhythm and blues helped take one-chord jams into the pop realm even if their own hits remained regional or minor.
You can't talk about the Meters without talking about the musical heritage that began in the late 18th century in Congo Square, across Rampart Street from the French Quarter. There on the same ground where many had been auctioned off, hundreds of black men and women gathered unshackled and unsupervised on Sundays, fusing disparate elements of New Orleans slave culture into cathartic song and dance. Slave culture in New Orleans was distinctly different from that of other regions of the South. The French and Spanish governments that controlled New Orleans for its first 100 years were more lenient than the British, not least because they tolerated African music-making. Moreover, many Native Americans were captured and enslaved during the initial French settlement, and it was not long until the Africans and Indians learned to communicate; Indian communities even began taking in runaway slaves, starting a cultural bond that would evolve into a crucial part of New Orleans' 20th-century culture: the Mardi Gras Indians. In addition, the city's proximity to the Caribbean, especially Haiti and Cuba, insured a slave population of unparalleled diversity in North America, resulting in a confluence of distinct rhythms that otherwise would never have intertwined. Eventually, New Orleans music also integrated elements of Western harmony, laying the groundwork for jazz. But at its core, New Orleans music is about rhythm, the swing and bounce, the two and four. From the very beginning it has been a form of release, a celebration of heritage and community. Tribes of Mardi Gras Indians kept the spirit alive, creating new traditions carried through the generations in chants and dances.
Jump forward to 1954, when 17-year-old pianist Art Neville and his high school band, the Hawkettes, landed a hit record with "Mardi Gras Mambo." The tune was a regional smash, re-pressed each year around Mardi Gras. But the musicians never saw a dime beyond the initial session fee. Though they never recorded another side, various iterations of the Hawkettes continued gigging around New Orleans with Art at the helm, even landing a spot as Larry Williams's touring band. Art began doing session work for Specialty Records and had local hits with "Ooh-Whee Baby" in 1957 and "Cha Dooky Do" in 1958.
That same year, when Neville was drafted into the Navy, his brother Aaron took over the band and hooked up with Joe Banashak's Minit Records. Aaron attracted moderate national attention with "Over You" in 1960, and when Art returned soon after, the two brothers backed Banashak's whole stable of artists on the Minit and Instant labels, including Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas and Chris Kenner. Yet despite the session work, the Nevilles were living hand to mouth. In a 1976 interview with British rock historian Cliff White, Art said of Banashak: "He'd flap a couple of hundred dollars at you. You ain't seen that much money in your life before. Wow, a whole hundred-dollar bill. And all the time the cat's making a fortune and we don't know it, man… He admitted it too."
In 1967, Aaron recorded for a small label called Par-Lo Records, owned by childhood friend George Davis in partnership with legendary studio man Cosimo Matassa, and ended up #2 on the pop charts with "Tell It Like It Is," cut just across Rampart Street from Congo Square at J&M studio. But as the song took off, Par-Lo fell apart, and though Aaron experienced national popularity, he saw no money. He told David Ritz: "Folks were stopping me, saying, 'Congratulations, Aaron, you're a rich man.' Rich? I still hadn't seen a dime." He earned nothing until he hired manager Joe Jones, who retrieved some royalties and set up a tour supporting Otis Redding and the Drifters.
After a stint as Aaron's tour manager and piano player, Art found himself back on his own in New Orleans, playing clubs and doing sessions. It was about this time he hooked up with guitarist Leo Nocentelli. Starting on a plastic ukulele at age eight, Leo built a rep for himself real quick. "I was about 11 years old and everybody in New Orleans started talking about this little snotty-nosed cat named Leo playing guitar. One day I was riding on my bike and there was a big limousine in front of my house. It was some people with Fats Domino . . . When they saw me, they said, ‘Sorry, we'll see you in about ten years.'" But as he grew, the wiry kid had no problem getting studio gigs. He developed a choppy rhythm sound grounded in a strong knowledge of jazz. Dense, three-note chords added subtle layers of harmony that blended perfectly with organ. Leo was an invaluable tool for producer and songwriter Allen Toussaint, the man behind most of Banashak's New Orleans r&b singers and their hits. Toussaint was always in need of a tight, supportive rhythm section.
Slowly, the Meters proper started to take form. Leo and Art began hanging with a young drummer named "Zigaboo" Modeliste (Art: "I used to have to ask the cat's parents if he could make the gig"). Zig brought in his cousin, guitarist George Porter Jr., on bass. (Porter: "He saw me playing bass and Art said, 'That's the instrument you should be playing. Do you want a gig?'") The group also included Neville brothers Aaron and Cyril and was billed as Art Neville & the Neville Sound. They started out with a regular gig at the Nitecap ("We played there for a long time, nobody in the place, you coulda throwed a hand grenade in there, wouldna killed nobody but the band."). Slowly the word spread, the Nightcap engagement was dubbed College Night, and the band developed a following. They moved up to the more prestigious Ivanhoe, a club in the French Quarter where the stage could only hold four musicians; Aaron and Cyril got the boot and the Meters were born.
Around this time, Allen Toussaint had struck up a partnership with producer Marshall Sehorn that resulted in the creation of Sea-Saint Studios and several labels (Sansu, Tou-Sea, Deesu) that distributed recordings from Sea-Saint. Besides the weekly gig at the Ivanhoe, the Meters were the studio band at Sea-Saint and released their first two 45s, "Bo Diddley (Parts 1 & 2)" and "Heartaches/I'm Gonna Put Some Hurt on You," in 1968 on Sansu. A year later they had a contract with Josie Records, a subsidiary of the New York-based Jubilee. Their first single, "Sophisticated Cissy," made it to #7 on the Billboard r&b charts, #34 pop, and the follow-up, "Cissy Strut," reached #4 and #23.
Much of the Meters' early material consists of off-the-cuff licks thrown together with a quick solo sandwiched in between. In other words, the guys were jamming, just having a good time. George remembers, "A lot of that Josie stuff was made up on the spot. We'd be doing some Lee Dorsey or Betty Harris or something and Toussaint would get tired. He'd split and we'd still be fired up and say, 'Well, hell, we oughta cut a couple of tracks.'" After a long day of work, they had energy to release. Their jams arose from the same spirit that had brought blacks to Congo Square 200 years earlier--cathartic rhythmic expressions to make you forget your cares and dance.
Meters licks are simple; Meters grooves are not. They'd come up with a new kind of funk--part soul-jazz, part r&b, all New Orleans. The tunes are naturally playable, but no one does it like the Meters can, not even close. Bass, guitar, organ and drums become a single unit, to listen to any one is missing the point. They leave holes in the music and as Vivien Goldman put it, "those holes that count for more than the notes, ya dig?" These guys came up playing in clubs and studios, and as a result they knew how to make people move and when not to play.
Their slinky, half-swung 16th-note pocket was deep. Each instrument could hold down the backbeat on its own. In "Cissy Strut" the guitar and bass play the hook in unison, one of the first major pop recordings on which the bass is playing the lead melody, while Art and Zig become the rhythm section, locked in tight, leaving gaps that pull you towards the next beat. Zigaboo's playful, inventive drumming is the most rhythmically active voice, and he drives the band. While Art, Leo and George will almost always be playing patterns, Zig, unlike most funk drummers, is constantly shifting. His unconventional kick, snare and hi-hat accentuations are derived from the New Orleans jazz funeral and parade traditions. He was one of the first drummers to play second line-style, where one drummer plays the bass drum and cymbal and another plays the snare, on a traditional trap kit.
Between the sparse guitar and bass of "Live Wire" you can almost feel organ whirling out of the Leslie, flooding your ear while Zig works out on the drums, hitting off-beats that you just don't hear outside of New Orleans. "Pungee," one of the most complex Meters tunes, puts bass and drums in the right speaker, organ and guitar in the left. On the right, you can hear the grunts of Zig and George digging in. As Art put it, "You can tell a happy session. You can hear it." The Meters are loose and free, yet somehow their sound is just as tight as James Brown's regimented grooves. They carry New Orleans traditions into a new generation and a new format; their music is an extension of the collective Congo Square catharsis.
The Meters released three LPs for Josie, The Meters in 1969, Look-Ka Py Py and Struttin' in '70. The three records have a similar sound and did moderately well on the r&b charts, hitting #23, #23, and #32 respectively, but never breaking the pop Top 100. As a result, the band never made it too far out of New Orleans, and was still scuffling. Around 1970, the first of a long series of personal conflicts divided the band. According to Art in a 1976 profile, "I was put out of the group by the group. They got together and decided that I was the cause of the shit going down, or I was too old or something, I don't know exactly." Art was back out on his own, and the rest of the guys were cooped up in Sea-Saint Studios, almost held prisoner by Allen Toussaint, who wanted their sound to be synonymous with his name.
In 1972, the Josie contract expired and when Warner Bros. approached the group, Art was brought back into the fold. The new label brought a new sound and a new approach. Most noticeably, the Meters became full-fledged vocalists. The other major change is the role of Allen Toussaint. Though he is listed as producer on Look-Ka Py Py and Struttin', Toussaint was rarely in the room for early Meters sessions. With major label interest and budget, the Meters got real studio time and Toussaint began to take charge. The post-session jams and capricious rhythmic interaction were replaced with thoughtful productions and formulated accompaniment. Whereas the early Meters records were just four guys in a room playing their tunes, the new sound featured layered arrangements with ample percussion and auxiliary overdubs.
The first record for Warner's Reprise label, 1972's Cabbage Alley, got a lot of press but did not sell particularly well. No single charted, though several tunes, including "Soul Island," "You've Got to Change," and the title track, found their way into the New Orleans canon. The record has the Meters' signature loose funk, and the band is still grooving hard, but something is different. Zigaboo's playing is less sporadic, and there are multiple guitar and keys tracks on many tunes. Though it still feels good, subconsciously you know this isn't just the tape rolling on the guys hanging out playing. Only the raw, unpolished vocals, particularly the backgrounds, enhance the sense of hang that makes the early Meters so appealing.
Their second attempt for Reprise came in 1974 with Rejuvenation. Again, glowing critical response and minimal sales to show for it. The album is chock full of New Orleans classics: "People Say," "Jungle Man," "Africa," "Just Kissed My Baby," and "Hey Pocky A-Way." Produced by Toussaint and the Meters, Rejuvenation is much sleeker and more radio-friendly than Cabbage Alley, and in retrospect, the most successful delivery of the new Meters sound. Zig is even more controlled and the arrangements are layered with constant background percussion, lots of keyboard overdubs, and the addition of a horn section. The horn parts are not hooks or counter melodies, in the Stax tradition; they are very much background parts, filling the rhythmic crater left by Zigaboo's refined role. The short, percussive stabs lock in perfectly with the accentuated off-beats that define the Meters' sound. The vocals are considerably cleaner without losing that Southern grit. On several tracks, Toussaint brings in female background vocals to add a more refined pop sensibility.
Rejuvenation is the most accessible and mainstream Meters record, and is regarded by many as their best. The title proved to be appropriate, the album became an underground phenomenon among New Orleans and r&b enthusiasts, fueled in part by the Meters' omnipresence in the studio. Between 1972 and 1975 they appeared on several hit records, including Dr. John's Right Place, Wrong Time, Robert Palmer's Sneaking Sally Through the Alley, and Labelle's "Lady Marmalade." Paul McCartney used the Meters on a Wings Mardi Gras single and then hired them to play the release party aboard the Queen Mary in California in 1975. Mick Jagger was so taken with their performance that he enlisted the band as support for the Rolling Stones' American and European tours in '75 and '76. Unfortunately, though not uncommon in their career, promotion was mismanaged and the Meters were not listed on the tour's press material and only those who caught one of the 75 shows were turned on to the New Orleans powerhouse.
As a result of the tour and the moderate successes, the Meters were offered another two-year, four-album deal with Reprise. In 1975 they put out Fire on the Bayou, the most commercially successful of their Reprise releases. In 1976, they worked on an album for Island Records with Art's uncle George Landry, also known as Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas tribe. The album consisted of the Tchoupitoulas' original Mardi Gras Indian chants and boasts, as well as a more traditional New Orleans cover of the Meters' "Hey Pocky A-Way." Alongside Big Chief Jolly and members of the tribe, Art, Aaron, Charles, and Cyril Neville provided vocals, marking the first time the four Neville brothers had recorded together. The Wild Tchoupitoulas, also co-produced by Toussaint, offers an interesting contrast to the Meters mid-‘70s work. Whereas the production of the Reprise phase sounds like a studio concoction, the Tchoupitoulas record is bursting with layers of percussion, vocal harmonies, guitars, and pianos, but feels like a parade through the streets of New Orleans.
In 1977, after two more unsuccessful records, Trick Bag and New Directions, (recorded in San Francisco with the Tower of Power horns, the only Meters record cut outside of New Orleans and without Allen Toussaint), and a contract-fulfilling greatest hits compilation, the Meters disbanded. Toussaint claimed the rights to the name, but after an informal jam at the 1989 Jazz & Heritage Festival, the band started doing occasional money-grab reunions, billed under a variety of offshoot names without all four original members. One incarnation, the Legendary Meters (Leo & George), appeared for a fantastic collaboration with the JB Horns in Switzerland in 1991. In 1994, the funky Meters (complete with lower-case "f") became the official moniker, featuring Art and George with the energetic, young David Russell Batiste, Jr. on drums, and Brian Stoltz, a veteran of the Neville Brothers band, on guitar. A 2005 official reunion gig at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival marked the first time the original lineup appeared together since the breakup, finally billed as the Meters. A brief tour followed in 2007, including a date opening for the Stones, but apparently all did not end well as Zig, George and Leo appeared at JazzFest '09 sans Art, billed as the Meter Men.
Despite the lack of mainstream success during their heyday, the Meters left an indelible mark on contemporary music. The rap sample database The-Breaks.com lists more than 100 tracks that use Meters samples. YouTube covers abound (though only one video of the original band is posted), and on any given night in some college, garage, or club, there's a band playing a Meters tune. In today's complex world of subgenres and endless classifications, the Meters have found themselves a mainstay of the jam band scene. Porter-Batiste-Stoltz, or PBS (the current funky Meters lineup minus Art), tours regularly, jamming their way through the Meters' songbook, playing major summer festivals and often including guests like Page McConnell of Phish.
There could be no Phish without the Meters. With the help of James Brown and the Grateful Dead, the Meters made one-chord jams a viable career, provided you do it with a heavy groove or heavy drugs, or both. They provided Allen Toussaint and his stable of artists with what Vivian Goldman has called the "biggest shot of rhythm ‘n' blues you ever done hear[d]," establishing the careers of major artists in exchange for a session fee. These guys have been out in Congo Square singing and dancing for years, and when the white folks started to gather, all they got in return was a good enough reputation to make a living as sidemen.
For most cats from New Orleans, of course, that's a decent deal. The sheer fact that four guys with a weekly gig in the French Quarter could play on dozens of hit records, tour with the Rolling Stones, and live to have a reunion tour is a testament to their skill and perseverance. But they deserve more--a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the very least. Despite it all, the Meters keep making that feel-good music – good for the body, good for the soul.
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